“What do you call a memory that never happened?” 13-year-old Kyla asks an imaginary group of peers as she rehearses the speech she plans to give at a belated graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020, whose primary school career was cut short by the pandemic. As she starts secondary school and says goodbye to childhood, Kyla is grieving, not just for those formal markers of transition from one stage of life to another, but for the little personal markers of her self-identity: her ability as an organiser, her talent as a dance captain.
Kyla is the central character in Shaun Dunne’s new play What Did I Miss?, which was to be the centrepiece of the Dublin Theatre Festival’s family programme in 2020, an annual partnership with the Ark, a cultural centre for children. Like all arts organisations around the country, the global pandemic presented the Ark with a challenge: how to reach young audiences when coming together is problematic.
As the Ark’s director, Aideen Howard, explained, What Did I Miss? was “actually version three” of their contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival programme for 2020.
“There was our first international programme,” Howard said from a social distance at her standing desk in a stark white office brightened with children’s artwork. “That had to be cancelled obviously because of travel restrictions and limits on indoor gatherings. Then we came up with an idea for an outdoor production that would comply with Covid restrictions, which we could tour to schoolyards, and Shaun wrote What Did I Miss?
“Then the guidelines changed, so we decided to redesign it as an indoor production, and that’s the scenario we are working with now. Of course, we also have to have a plan for what will happen if things change again, but we are keeping our fingers crossed that nothing too dramatic happens to stop audiences coming back into us.”
Alas, Howard’s crossed fingers brought her no luck. Just before the Dublin Theatre Festival went live, theatres across the country were closed because of Covid-19. They have not opened since.
Our conversation took place on an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon at the Ark. Usually the cultural centre would be filled with children’s voices drifting up from the foyer to the comfortable long room, where audiences gather between shows, or to the exhibition space where an impressive Lego version of the Millennium Falcon still floats in a glass case. But there was life in the theatre space, where rehearsals for What Did I Miss? were under way. There was a child in the building too, Naomi Moonveld-Nkosi, who was playing Kyla, and who bounced into the workshop space on the top floor of the building, in headband and mask, to talk about the play with Dunne, who was also directing the piece.
The pair have known each other for several years. Moonveld-Nkosi first came to the Ark as a member of the cultural centre’s Children’s Council, a long-term project which Dunne has been facilitating since 2016. As a member of the Children’s Council in 2017-2018, Moonveld-Nkosi experienced theatre, music, literature, art, film and dance from a variety of perspectives with her peers, and advised the adult administrators of the Ark about the centre’s programme. Moonveld-Nkosi’s favourite part was “doing acting games and improvisations, because you get skills on the fly and can freestyle”.
After graduating from the council, Moonveld-Nkosi continued to be involved with the Ark, participating in taster workshops and consulting on programming for The Big Bang Festival. When Dunne began writing What Did I Miss?, “Naomi immediately came to mind. One of the pieces of feedback we got from the Children’s Council over the years was that they wanted to see more children on stage, so it was great to be able to write something that would facilitate that, and to have an opportunity to bring one of the Council alumni back. The Ark programmes work for children up to 12 years of age, so I suppose we are always looking for ways that we can continue to connect with the Children’s Council once they move on.”
For Dunne, the pre-existing relationship with Moonveld-Nkosi also allowed him to work “in a totally accelerated capacity”, he said.
“Usually I would spend two years on a project like this, especially if it was a project for the Theatre Festival, which is a really big deal. But here we are. We came up with the idea in June and started working with the actors in July.
“There was a week of development before I started the script and Naomi did loads of improvising, worldbuilding stuff, so I really knew how to make the play work for her. I knew her sense of personality, her style, the way she goes about her business, and I could bring all that to the script. Naomi is a really good dancer too, so we were able to find a way to bring that into the show as well.
“There’s a sort of flexibility when you are writing something performer-specific. You can really bring their manner and style of communication into the piece from the beginning. You can work with the skills you have.”
That is not to say there weren’t challenges. For example, Dunne had to tailor his instinctive directorial approach to accommodate social distancing, “which basically means we have to do everything in the round. With two metres distance you are literally speaking to the room all the time, so all those little one-on-one chats you would have with an actor or designer are gone.”
Dunne adapted though, just as he did to the accelerated timescale. “I suppose it has made me realise that the value I place on process and lengthy development may not always be necessary,” he said. “It might not be the best way of doing things all the time. Art can be urgent and quick too.”
However, one element that did not change was Dunne’s openness to collaboration on every level. “When you are working in a responsive way, you get a more authentic representation, and you hope that people who come to see it will recognise and respond in a similar way.”
Moonveld-Nkosi said she could “definitely relate” to the story, which focuses on how Kyla feels about “missing her friends”, as well as her relationship with her estranged mother, played by Sarah Morris. She likes how that story plays out in Sarah Bacon’s costume design too: “My character is more organised, so I have these high-waisted jeans rolled up and nice sneakers. It looks really simple and clean. My mum, who is lost and confused, has a more rebellious, lazy look, with leather, punky stuff and she has loads of tattoos.”
Despite the changing framework for the show, moving from an outdoor production to the Ark, Moonveld-Nkosi was feeling confident about performing live on stage. “I’m happy it’s inside actually because I was worried about what would happen if it rained, and the theatre is very familiar to me, because I spent a lot of time there when I was on the Children’s Council.”
Dunne too felt the reconfiguration of the show had its benefits. “I love the space of the Ark. It is small and intimate and designed especially for the audience who will come to see the show. It’s an easy place to make a show for, even when it’s supposed to be difficult. The Ark in general is such a great place to work. Its remit is, literally, to bring joy to people, and that sort of positive energy is a really supportive place in which to take risks.”
Of course the biggest risk was the logistical one, in the ever-shifting landscape of the pandemic. Dunne was philosophical about it all: “Flexibility is the motto. All of us know this could be the last gig we do for a while, depending on if things get worse, so we might as well put our hands in – in a socially distant way – and just make it happen.”
Finally, this June, Version 4.0 will happen with a live stream of What Did I Miss? from the Ark’s auditorium, as another generation of sixth-class pupils prepare to leave primary school in these strange, uncertain circumstances.
What Did I Miss? premieres at the Ark on June 11th, and runs until June 13th